Penn and the Indians


Tishcohan, Gustavas Hesselius, 1735
Commissioned by John Penn


Penn's relationship with Native Americans should be viewed in specific manner. For what Penn and his contemporaries realized, what scholars such as Francis Jennings remind us of, and what most viewers (at least those who their wrote comments) of the Capitol friezes ignored, was the variety inherent in Indian-White relations. I mean by this simply that there was no uniform 'white' colonist nor 'standard Indian'. Instead, there existed numerous tribes, with complex inter and cross tribal affiliations, as well as colonists from several different countries all vying power. And the various tribes did the same. We should also remember that Penn entered the American arena somewhat late in the game; political alliances among various tribes, and between the tribes and the colonists had been set. And by the end of the 17th century colonists often looked towards Indians as a means to wealth, especially through the fur trade, not only as 'savages' to be feared.

Once Penn received his charter he realized--or at least was informed--that much of the land he wanted was held by Indians who would expect payment in exchange for a quitclaim to vacate the territory. The tribe he would have to deal with most often was the Delaware (Leni Lenape), who had never been defeated militarily by the Swedes or the Dutch. Penn, not surprisingly, had no military ambitions; he even refused to fortify Philadelphia. As such, the only practicle and legal way to get their land and secure their friendship was the treaty. The treaty also demonstrated Penn's claim to the land to his investors, who would have been much less interested in the venture without clear title.

And so Penn and his agents began the process of buying land from its Native 'holders'. These holders were various Delaware chiefs, and not as legend has it the Iroquois. Despite the fact that this (mostly) New York State Confederacy of the 'Five Nations' had defeated the Delaware, they did not have the power the sell the land. As Francis Jennings points out, this misreading of the situation resulted from the fact that the Delaware played the role of peacemaker among various quarreling tribes. As Native women often mediated disputes, the Delaware held the position of the 'woman' in this arrangement. Europeans wrongly assumed that the 'woman' position signified a lack of rights and lack of power. However, they were correct in assessing that the Iroquois held the most power, though Penn thought that politics, at least dealing with Indians, were local so he favored the less militarily powerful Delaware.

What is less assuredly myth--or fact--is whether Penn ever signed a 'Great Treaty' in 1682 at the village of Shackamaxon. As we have seen, for many Americans (and non-Americans such as Voltaire) this deed proved the most inspiring 'event' of Penn's life. Francis Jennings believes that Penn signed the treaty and never broke it, but that his less scrupulous successors destroyed the document, presumably so that they could renege on its provisions. (201) We do know that Penn did buy much land, so must have made at least one such agreement, instituting what was known in Indian terminology as a 'chain of friendship'. And there do exist several references to this chain being made between Penn and the Delaware.

Penn paid a total of 1200 pounds for the land, which though a large sum, was probably fair for both sides. Penn took the advice of Dutch and Swedish colonists who had already set some parameters for treaty agreements These earlier settlers provided invaluable assistance in delineating who to contact, and who to pay for the land. On the other side of the 'covenant chain', the Delaware had many years of negotiating such treaties, and were ready to sell their land to Penn, on their terms. Disease had decimated much of their population so they needed less of the land near Philadelphia, and at the time there was plenty of un-occupied space to the North and West of the (future) city. As well, the Indian's 'ownership' of the land, was not as 'savagely simple' as had been assumed. (Jennings, 201). They worked with a complex arrangement of overlapping 'right's to use certain areas, and rights to dispose of these obligations. So Penn may have had to pay several times to the same holder in order to clear all claims. He was not 'duped' into paying several times for the same property.

Though Penn was generally fair in his purchases, he also had to be a shrewd businessman, especially as he competed with Lord Baltimore for territorial rights. He out-maneuvered Maryland agents in his purchases, thus insuring that his future city would not be largely subsumed by its southern neighbor. Penn had competitors to the North as well. And any northern land transactions meant tangling with New York State for land, and perhaps more importantly, trading rights with the Iroquois Confederacy. To secure new routes to the interior and more trade with the Five Nations, Penn tried to purchase a large piece of land on the Susquehanna River. Pennsylvania could then have a trading post closer to the Iroquois than was Albany. However, New York State merchants beat Penn to the punch by using their comfortable relations with the Confederacy to claim the land--as a 'gift' from the Iroquois nonetheless--before Penn.

Penn ultimately did gain access to the Susquehanna region, though he had to wait until 1700. By that time New York State governor Dongan, who had convinced the Iroquois to cede the land to him rather than to Penn, was gone. Once he returned to Ireland, as Earl of Limerick, he "blackmailed Penn out of 100 Pounds for the deed" (Jennings, 203). Penn's fortunes were also helped by the Iroquois' defeat by the French and their Native allies. As well, the French and Indian wars allowed the Susquehanock Indians to move back to their old homes at Conestoga, vacating much of the land that Penn sought. So by 1701, he could purchase the land without difficulty.

The treaty of 1701 is both the first full treaty text that remains extant (there exist parts of earlier ones), and the last agreement brokered directly by Penn rather than his agents. It also capped a major power play: "It conveyed land, controlled trade, and arranged juridical relationships, all at the expense of New York and New York's partners, the Iroquois Five Nations" (Jennings 205). As he had done before, Penn rewarded 'his' Indians. His policies helped make Pennsylvania, in the words of the missionary John Heckewelder, "the last, delightful asylum" for Native Americans (Jennings, 207). Penn's successors were much less fair and scrupulous in dealing with the Indians. The ink was barely dry on the 1701 treaty when Penn's secretary and family steward, James Logan, began to devise ways to reclaim land set aside for the Susquehannocks and the Delaware.

By 1701 Penn had returned to England for good, trying to administer to his declining fortunes at home, as well as to his colony, until he had a debilitating stroke in 1712. His legacy in dealing with the Indians was much more than ephemeral though, despite the fact that his heirs to the colony were much less fair than was its founder. The Iroquois rebuilt their empire after the French and Indian war, and as they did were linked into Pennsylvania's covenant chain of friendship. This relationship was formalized in a series of treaties in the first half of the 18th century, and gave the colony access to valuable trading routes and partners. And even more interestingly, Quakers were spared the vengeance of Indians who tried to reclaim their lands in the Seven Years war (1755-62). As Jennings points out, Quaker historians were at first mystified as to why the Delaware and their allies--who presumably had been well treated--would attack Pennsylvania colonies. They realized that Penn's beneficence had both obscured his descendants chicanery, as well as guaranteed the safety of many of the 'friendly' Quakers, whose lives and property were purposely spared during that war.

Furthermore, Penn's relationship with the Natives ties in with his overall concept of his colony. He had a just and fair plan, though one formed by a conception of himself of lord of his domain. His planning was simultaneously 'idealistic' and pragmatic; he had grand visions of life in the New World, and realized them as much as was practicable. And as the various iconographers of Colonial America, including the Capitol sculptors, realized, his method did stand out from his contemporaries. While those who would argue that he essentially sought the same imperialistic goals, only in a kinder, gentler manner, may have a point, one must argue that this 'kindness' was relatively speaking, better than much of the outright hate and distrust that characterized Indian-White relations.



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